Jenny Beavan interview: ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ costume designer

“I really, really am completely thrilled that we have been noticed,” remarks Jenny Beavan about her Oscar nomination for the costume design for “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.” The film, a delightful tale in which a working-class London widow (Leslie Manville) pursues her dream of owning a House of Dior haute couture dress, proved a unique challenge for the costumer, who had to furnish the designer gowns “on a modest budget, in covid, in a city I didn’t know with a crew I never met before, in Hungarian.” As a result, she expresses how she feels “incredibly proud” of the work and is thrilled to share this acknowledgement with her crew. Watch our exclusive video interview above.

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is based on the 1958 novel by Paul Gallico. Beavan is no stranger to literary adaptations, having previously worked on a host of Merchant Ivory films based on novels, including “The Bostonians,” “A Room with a View,” “Maurice,” “Howards End,” and “The Remains of the Day,” as well as “Sense and Sensibility.” Of working with source material, the costume designer notes, “I do normally read the novel… I try to only read it once and not stick to it.” On “Mrs. Harris,” she emphasizes that the screenplay “was quite expanded in terms of making it more difficult for her [Mrs. Harris] to get the money” to go to Paris, thus making the story “fresher and newer” that the original work and previous screen adaptations.

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The movie begins in the milieu of 1950s, working-class London, giving the audience a glimpse at Mrs. Harris’ daily routine. Beavan was seven years old in the year the film takes place and grew up in Kensington, so she admits that “in absolute truth, I remember it… I remember a huge amount of London then… I saw women looking like Mrs. Harris often in the streets.” The inspiration for the costume design for Mrs. Harris, her friends Vi (Ellen Thomas) and Archie (Jason Isaacs), and all of the background performers was therefore “steeped” in her “psyche.”

To recreate the fashion of midcentury Dior, though, Beavan had to conduct research. At an early point in the process, the Oscar nominee was invited to visit the House of Dior archive. Even though she shares that she “never had a great interest in fashion,” she found the experience “absolutely fascinating.” But surprisingly, the company “did not keep much in the 50s” because “they did their collection, they sold it, they moved on. They did not see any reason to keep pieces for archives.” The visit also yielded a surprise: while the costume designer had the impression that Dior would be handling all of the haute couture for the film, by the end of the meeting, “Four horrified faces looked up at me from the other side of the table and went, ‘No.’”

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The task at hand proved to be extraordinary, in no small part because an early sequence of the film features Mrs. Harris attending a showcase of the House of Dior’s 10th Anniversary Collection, which required Beavan and her crew to create around a dozen haute couture pieces. The film was able to borrow five of Dior’s own recreations from its heritage collection, plus they found a dress in the collection of her frequent collaborator John Bright’s company Cosprop. But they had to make the rest, which proved challenging during covid because “there was no lovely wandering around shops at that moment in time.” Patterned fabrics proved hard to source online and, to the designer, “nothing looked Dior enough,” so she opted instead for colors because “obviously you can tell Mrs. Harris would love color.”

The character falls in love with two dresses in particular: the green “Vénus” and the red “Temptation.” To make these stand out from the rest of the dresses at the fashion show, Beavan made sure they were the only two that “have color in them and that kind of shape.” “Temptation” was “based on an actual, real Dior dress” and featured a “soft tulle” fabric, while the green is “slightly old fashioned with the silver appliqué, embroidery, on it, and the color was strong.” She chuckles remembering how actress Leslie Manville preferred the green dress to the red, even though the red was Mrs. Harris’ first choice.

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As for her own ensemble for the 95th Academy Awards, Beavan has already given the topic some thought. At past ceremonies, the nominee has worn attire inspired by the film for which she earned the recognition, including last year’s “Cruella.” She shares that she loves being a little “irreverent” with her sartorial choices, but notes, “I want to be fun and I want to pay homage to the film and our wonderful cast and crew.”

Beavan has earned 12 Oscar nominations, six of them shared with John Bright. Together, they won for “A Room with a View” in 1987. She has won twice more, for “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 2016 and for “Cruella” in 2022.

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UPLOADED Feb 1, 2023 10:00 am